President Obama has repeatedly promised to tackle the long-term structural deficit of this country, but when? Even his debt commission is at odds over whether it would be better to chip away at the deficit in earnest while the economy remains in such a delicate state, or after stability takes hold.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama signed a bill intended to stem government bloat by reducing federal government waste, fraud and abuse by $50 billion between now and 2012. "We have to challenge a status quo that accepts billions of dollars in waste as the cost of doing business," the president proclaimed at the White House event.
With a report from the president's Bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform not due until December, public comments from its members have yet to reveal a consensus view over how to proceed with deficit reduction. Sparing no frankness, Commission Co-chair and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson said recently that the group is comprised of "good people of deep, deep difference, knowing the possibility of the odds of success are rather harrowing to say the least."
Commission member and Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota is weary of tackling the debt in the current tenuous economic climate. "I would go to 2013, and maybe even 2014," he says. "But then we've got to pivot and put in place structural changes that will prevent the explosion of debt that really does present an enormous threat to the long-term economic security of the country."
However, former CBO Director and commission member Alice Rivlin says the groundwork should be laid soon, with actual implementation some years out. "We don't need to wait until we see the economy actually recovering," she said in a recent interview.
Congressional Republicans have frequented the sentiment that it is the Obama administration's over-spending that has multiplied the already giant deficit Mr. Obama often talks of inheriting.
House Financial Services Committee Ranking Member Spencer Bachus (R-AL), says the administration and congressional Democrats' thinking behind that is "if the U.S. spent hundreds of billions of dollars, millions of jobs would be created and businesses would grow." But Bachus laments, "So far the only real growth we witness in our debt -- is our debt and our deficit, and they're a size that's already bloating Washington bureaucracy."
President Obama says he's fully aware of the government's red ink and that he's already begun efforts to chip away at it; including his call earlier this year for a freeze in domestic discretionary spending.
But days before she was announced by Mr. Obama as a member of the his debt commission in late February, Alice Rivlin told US News and World Report she sees the need for broader strokes. "The spending freeze that the president announced is a small step in the right direction, but it applies to a very small part of the budget. That is not going to solve the big looming deficits that come largely from the entitlement programs growing faster than taxes in the future."
The commission's next meeting is on July 28 and their final report is due to the president on December 1st. Despite hours of meetings and public forums, the road to consensus has been long and hard. Commission Co-Chair Erskine Bowles lays out the dangers of failure this way, "This debt is like a cancer. It is truly going to destroy the country from within."